THE visitor had been drawn twenty kilometres beyond the end of the communal road under construction, by a rumour of a small window of thirteenth-century glass, said to represent a haloed saint in a helmet — none other, indeed, than Saint Julian of Auvergne — and to be found in the village church of Saint Jubans, down the valley.
But there was a wedding in the church, followed by the usual collection for charity. After the bridal procession had passed into the sunshine, two small acolytes began fighting over an odd sou. In a stride the tall old priest was upon them, knocked their heads together, unshelled them from their red, white-laced robes of office, and they rolled — a pair of black-gabardined gamins locked in war — out over the threshold on to the steep hillside.
He stood at the church door and looked down into the village beneath, half buried among the candles of the horse-chestnuts. It climbed up, house by house, from a busy river, to sharp, turfed slopes that lapped against live rock, whence, dominating the red valley, rose enormous ruins of an old château with bastions, curtains, and keeps, and a flying bridge that spanned the dry moat. Valerian and lilac in flower sprang wherever there was foothold.
‘All acolytes are little devils,’ said the priest benignly, and descended to the wedding-breakfast, which one could see in plan, set out by the stream in a courtyard of cut limes. His bearing was less that of a curé than a soldier, for his soutane swung like a marching-overcoat, and he lacked that bend of the neck, ‘the priest’s stoop,’ with which his Church stamps her sons when they are caught young.
The wedding-feast had ended, and the heat of the day was abated before he climbed up again, beneath an enormous umbrella, to find the visitor among the ruins beside the little church . . .
‘I make a rule not to smoke unless it is offered. A thousand thanks! . . . This ought to be Smyrna . . . ’ He exhaled the smoke through his finely-cut nostrils. ‘Yes, it is Smyrna . . . Good! And Monsieur appreciates our “Marylands” also? Hmm. I remember the time when our Government tobaccos were a national infamy . . . How long here am I? Close upon forty years . . . No. Never much elsewhere. It suffices me . . . ’
‘A good people. Composed of a few old clans — Meilhac — Leclos — Falloux — Poivrain — Ballart. Monsieur may have observed their names upon our Monument.’ He pointed downward to the little cast-iron poilu, which seemed to be standard pattern for War memorials in that region. ‘Neither rich nor poor. When the charabanc-road through the valley is made they will be richer . . . Postcards for the tourists, an hotel, and an antiquity shop, for sure, here beside the church. A Syndicate of Initiative has, indeed, approached me to write on the attractions of the district, as well as on the life of Saint Jubanus . . . But surely he existed! He was a Gaul commanding a Gaulish legion at the time when Christianity was spreading in the Roman Army. We were — he was engaged against the Bo — the Alemanni — and was on the eve of attack when some of his officers chose that moment to throw down their swords and embrace the Cross. Knowing that he had been baptized, they assumed his sympathy; but he charged them to wait till the battle was finished. He said, in effect “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Some obeyed. Some did not. But even with defaitist and demoralised forces he won the day. They would then have given him a triumph, but he put aside the laurel wreath, and from his own chariot publicly renounced his profession and the old deities. So — I expect it was necessary for discipline to be kept — he was beheaded on the field he had won. That is the legend . . .
‘His miracles? But one only on record. He called a dying man back to life by whispering in his ear, and the man sat up and laughed. (I wish I knew that joke.) That is why we have a proverb in our valley: “It would take Saint Jubans himself to make you smile.” I imagine him as an old soldier, strict in his duty, but also something of a farceur. Every year I deliver on his Day a discourse in his honour. And you will perceive that when the War came his life applied with singular force to the situation . . .
‘They called up the priests? Assuredly! I went . . . It is droll to re-enter the old life in a double capacity. You see, one can sometimes — er — replace a casualty if — if — one has been — had experience. In that event, one naturally speaks secularly on secular subjects. A moment later one gives them Absolution as they advance. But they were good — good boys. And so wastefully used! . . . That is why I am of all matchmakers in our village the least scrupulous. Ask the old women! . . . Yes, monsieur . . . and I returned without a scar . . . The good God spared me also the darkness of soul which covered, and which covers still, so many — the doubt — the defiance — the living damnation. I had thought — may He pardon me! — that it was hard to reach the hearts of my people here. I saw them, after the War, split open! Some entered hells of whose existence they had not dreamed — of whose terrors they lacked words to tell. So they — men distraught — needed more care in the years that followed the War than even at Chemin des Dames . . . Yes, I was there, also, when it seemed that hope had quitted France. I know now how a man can lay hands upon himself out of pure fear!
‘And there were those, untouched, whom the War had immobilised from the soul outwards. In special, there was Martin Ballart, the only one of his family who returned — the son of a good woman who died at his birth. Him, frankly, I loved from the beginning, and, I think, he loved me. Yes, even when I took him for one of my acolytes — you saw the type at the wedding? — and I had very often to correct him. He was not clever nor handsome, but he had the eyes of a joyous faithful dog, and the laugh of Pan himself. And he came back at the last blasted, withered, dumb — a ghost that gnawed itself. There had been his girl, too . . . When they met again he did not know her. She said: “No matter. I will wait.” But he remained as he was. He lived, at first, with his aunt down there. Oh, he worked — it was no time for idleness — but the work did not restore. And he would hide himself for an hour or two and come back visibly replunged in his torments. I watched him, of course. It was a little photograph — one of those accursed Kodak pictures, of a young man in a trench, dancing languorously with a skeleton. It was the nail of his obsession . . . I left it with him. Had I taken it, there might have been a crisis. Short of that, I tried every expedient, even to exorcism . . . But why not? You call them mick-robs. We call them Devils . . . One thing only gave me hope. He took pleasure in my company. He looked at me with the eyes of a dog in pain, and followed me always. It came about in effect that he lived up here. He would sit still while I played piquet with our schoolmaster, Falloux . . .
‘Ah, that was a type upon whom our War had done bad work! No, he had not served. He had some internal trouble, which I told him always was a mere constipation of Atheism. Oh yes — he was enormously a freethinker! A man with a thick black beard, and an intellect (he carried it in front of him like his stomach) never happy unless it was dirtily rude to the Bon Dieu and His Saints. Little unclean stories and epigrams, you understand. He called Saint Jubanus a militarist and an impostor — this defaitist of a Zeppelinistic belly! But he could play piquet, and he was safer at my house than infecting our estaminet with his witticisms. I told him always that he would be saved on account of “invincible ignorance.” Then he would thunder:
‘“But if your God has any logic, I shall be damned!”’
‘“Be content,” I would reply. “The Bon Dieu will never hear your name. You will be certified, together with the Cartel, by some totally inferior specialist of a demon as incapable of receiving even rudimentary instruction.”
‘Then he would clutch at his beard and throw down the cards, which poor Martin picked up for us. But apart from his rudeness to God and the Hierarchy, he was of exemplary life. Pardi, he had to be! She charged herself with that. Not believing in God, he had naturally married a devil before whom he trembled. She took him to Mass. That was why he was always most extravagant at my house on Monday evenings. His atheism, Monsieur, was, after all, but the panache without which a good little Frenchman cannot exist. A fond, there are few atheists in France. But, I concede, there are several arrivistes. Knowing this (and her), I hardly troubled to pray for him.
‘It was for poor Martin that I prayed always but not with full passion until his aunt told me she would take him to Lourdes . . . Every man, besides being all the other base characters in Scripture, is a Naaman at heart. You have seen Lourdes, Monsieur? A-ah! . . .
‘So I exposed this new trouble and my own mean little soul to the Bon Dieu. It was He — I remember the very night — Who put it into my heart to pray seriously to Saint Jubanus. I had prayed to him, oh, many times before; but it occurred to me at that hour that my past demands had not, in view of his secular career, been sufficiently precised or underlined. The idea kept me awake. I got up. I went to the church, which is, as you see, not three steps. There — it is — it was — an old duty of my life in the world — I kept my — I walked up and down in the dark. At last I found myself, constating my case, not formally to a Saint, but officially as to my commanding officer. I said — substantially:
‘“Mon General, the time has come for action. You gave your single life to uphold the honour of your military obligation. There are some two million Gauls who have given up theirs for much the same object, as well as twenty-three out of your very own village here. Surely some of these must by now have appeared before you! I address you simply, then, as an old moustache who is trying to beat off an attack of the Devil on the soul of Martin Ballart, Corporal, 743rd of the Line, Two Citations. (One must be precise always with the Hierarchy.) I am at the end of my resources. God has ordered that I should report to you. I ask no obvious miracles, because, between ourselves, I do not in the least desire this pleasant retreat of ours to develop into a Lourdes. I beg only your help as my officer in the case of a good boy who, by fortune of war, is descending alive into Hell.” I concluded, textually: “Mon General, many reputations rest upon a single action. That also is the fortune of war. But I submit, with respect, after your sixteen-hundred years in retreat, it is not too much that an old and very tired combatant of your own race should signal for a small reinforcement from his Commandant . . . ”
‘I think — I know, indeed, from what happened afterwards — he was moved by this last thrust. It was as though all God’s good night had chuckled above me. I went to my bed again and slept in confidence . . .
‘Did I look for a sign? Did Gouraud give any when he took our revenge for Chemin des Dames — when he let the enemy fall into the trap by their own momentum? No! I continued my work, and always I prayed for Martin. Then there came down the valley — as he does yearly — the itinerant mender of umbrellas, for whom my housekeeper stores up her repairs. She had acquired a piece of material to re-cover my umbrella, which, as you can see, is somewhat formidable in point of size, and of a certain antiquity. Indeed, I do not know whether there still exists another effective machine of its type, constructed, see you, from the authentic bone of the whale. Look! Vast as it is, it was still more vast when that artist arrived. My Mathilde’s piece of material was found to be inadequate in extent. But the man said that, with a small cutting down of the tips of the ribs, he could accommodate the area to the fabric. The result you behold. A fraction smaller, but essentially the same. And equally strong. Mon Dieu, that was needed! . . . Yes, sometimes I dare to think that that crapulous vagrant might have been Saint Jubanus himself! . . .
‘This was in the interval — while the good Saint prepared his second line just like our Gouraud. During that time I listened to poor Martin’s aunt making her arrangements to take him to Lourdes, of which officially I had to approve. For, what miracle had we to offer? Further, I endured the attacks of’ that Falloux. Something that I may have said in respect to The Almighty diverted his dirtinesses from that quarter, and he fell back on Saint Jubanus. My own vanity — the Syndicate of Initiative having approached me, as I have told you, to write his life for prospective tourists — drew that on my head. I fear that, once or twice, I may have lost my dignity with him as a priest. He asserts that I swore like a Foot Chausseur, which had been his service. (Poor little rats of the Line!) . . .
‘And our Saint’s Day that year, was wet, so I knew all the world would attend. I had been summoned out of the village before the discourse — a couple of kilometres down the road. On my return, because it dripped water by rivers, I set my repaired umbrella to dry . . . But we will go over to the church. It is not three steps, and I will show you the place. Also, it will be cooler in there . . . It is true we are in horrible neglect, but, as you say, that window is a jewel. It represents beyond doubt Saint Jubanus . . .
‘My umbrella? I deposited that behind this pillar here, outside the sacristy. And by the side of the pillar, as you see, is as much as we have of a vestiary — this press, with its shelves. Remark that I laid my umbrella, always open, in this spot, on its side. Thus! For myself, when I preach, though I am not an orator, I prefer the naked soutane — it hampers action less; but — out of respect for our Saint — I put on the cotta. At the same time I tell my two acolytes — who are of precisely the type you saw after the wedding; it is fixed by the Devil — to prepare me the vestments for the Service of the Benediction which would succeed my discourse. It was to them to extract these vestments with some decency from that press there. In this there was a little delay. I stepped aside to look, for — an acolyte is capable of anything — it seemed to me that they had chosen that hour to amuse themselves with my umbrella. I demanded why they did not leave it alone. One replied that he could not; and the other opened that terrible giggle of the nervous small boy. Heaven pardon me, but I am of limited patience! I signified that I had means of enforcing my orders. There is a reverberation in this place effective for the voice at dramatic moments.
‘But it was my umbrella which at that moment began to take the stage. It receded from me with those two young attached to different points of its circumference. At the same time it gyrated painfully in that shadow there. I followed, stupefied, and demanded some explanation of the outrage. It replied in two voices of an equal regret that it was attached and could not free itself. I hastened to aid. They said afterwards they misconstrued my motives. All I know is that my umbrella, open always, but tortured by unequal compressions, descended indescribably those three steps here into the body of the church, where the congregation awaited my discourse. On one side of its large circle, which you see, was an acolyte, facing inwards, clawing at the laces on his bosom and his elbow. On another was his companion, inextricably caught high up under the armpit, which he could not reach with the other hand, because he was facing outwards, pinned there by his vestments. The central effect, Monsieur, was that of an undevout pagoda conducting a pas de trois in a sacred edifice, to the accompaniment of increasing whimpers. This was before they collapsed, those young. Whether by accident or design, the child facing inwards snatched at the back of the head of the other. We shave our boys’ heads in France, fortunately; but he had nails, that one, and the other protested . . .
‘I? I followed, men said, step by step, slowly, with my mouth open. Some instinct doubtless warned me not to approach lest I should be — er — caught up by that chariot. Also, which often happens to me inopportunely, the incident struck me as humorous. I desired to see the end . . . But this was but the beginning. My people gasped. My umbrella pursued its career, undecidedly but continuously. Then one of the little juggernauts — if that be the word — began to weep. The other followed . . . And then? Then, Monsieur, that Falloux — that practical and logical atheist, who believes reason is the source of allleapt into the breach, crying: “But they are attached! Stand still, and I will detach you.” But that they would not do. My perambulating mosque of an umbrella resumed command. Its handle, see, tripped and slid over the stone floor like the pointed foot of a danseuse. This, with the natural elasticity of the ribs, furnished all the motifs of the ballet. As Falloux stooped to the rim of its circumference — being short-sighted in all respects — one side elevated itself, and the point of a rib caught him in the beard beneath the chin. It appeared then that he could not disengage. He made several gestures. Then he cried: “But it is I who am also attached! Stand still, you misbegotten little brats, till I detach myself!” And he laboured with his hands in the thickets of his beard like a suicide who has no time to lose. But he remained — he rested there — conforming with yelps of agony to the agonies of the rival circus, into whose orbit had now projected itself, at their own level, the head of their abominated preceptor, distorted and menacing . . . And then? . . .
‘There are occasions, Monsieur, when one must lead or oneself mount the tumbril. I exploded a fraction of a second before my people, saving, doubtless, some a ruptured blood-vessel. We did not — see you — laugh greatly. We were beyond that point when we began. Soon — very soon — we could no more. We could but ache aloud, which I assure you is most painful — while my insolent umbrella promenaded its three adherents through pagan undulations and genuflexions. It was Salome’s basin, you understand, dancing by itself with every appearance of enjoyment, and offering to all quarters the head of the Apostle and of two of the Innocents. But not the Holy Ones!
‘Then she rose in her place, and said: “Imbecile! But stand still. I will bring the scissors.”
‘And she went out. It was cruel of the Saint to force us to recommence. We could do nothing except continue to ache and hiccough and implore Falloux to stand still. He would not — he could not — on account of those young, who, weeping with shame, continued to endeavour to extricate themselves individually. Falloux followed their movements in every particular. You see, he was attached to his troupe by hairs, which it hurts to pull — oh, exquisitely! But he did his best. I have never conceived such motions, even in dreams. You will comprehend, Monsieur, that there are certain physical phenomena inseparable from the contortions of a globose man labouring through unaccustomed exercises. These also were vouchsafed to us! . . .
‘It is said that I was on my knees beating my forehead against the back of a prie-Dieu, when we heard, above all, the laugh of Faunus himself — the dear, natural voice of my Martin, rich with innocent delight, crying: “But, do it again! If you love me, Uncle Falloux, do it all again!”
‘We turned as one, and Martin’s girl, who sits always where she can see him, took him in her arms. The miracle had happened! . . . Yes, from that moment Falloux lost the centre of his stage. Then she returned — like Atropos. She cut him free; she threw down the shears; she led him out . . . I? I picked them up and I conducted my autopsy on my acolytes with more of circumspection. Beards renew themselves, but not our poor little church vestments when they are torn . . .
‘The explanation? Modern and scientific, Monsieur. Saint Jubanus — the repairer of umbrellas — had, as I have told you, shortened the ribs of my umbrella. Look! He had then capped the point of each rib with a large, stamped, tin tip, which you perceive locks down. It bears some likeness to the old snap-hook on the pole of an Artillery waggon, and is perfectly calculated to catch in any fabric — or hair. But, to make sure, that inspired scoundrel had, in pushing on his labour-saving capsules — which are marked S.G.D.G. (that ought to be “A.M.D.G.”)— bent back the terminal laminae — fibres — what do you call them? — of the whale’s bone. You can see them protruding hungrily from the neck of each rib-cap, and also from the slits at the side of it . . . Have you forgotten those heads of grass with which one used to entangle and wind up the silky hairs in the nape of a girl’s neck? Just that, Monsieur; but in a sufficiently gross beard, inextricable, and causing supreme torture at every twitch . . .
‘Yes. We were all stilled after Martin had laughed, except Martin and his girl. They wept together — the tears from the soul. I said to them:
‘“Go out, my children. All the world is for you today Paradise. Enter there!”
‘I had reason. They would never have listened to my beautiful discourse. Ah! It was necessary to reconstruct that while we regained our gravity, because at that moment (it is true, Monsieur, that the Devil’s favourite lair is beneath the Altar), at that moment came my temptation! Falloux had been delivered into my hands by Saint Jubanus. He who had mocked and thrust out his chin against God and the Saints had, logically, by that very chin been caught and shaken in the face of the souk, as I myself — as I have seen a man handled at Sidi bel Abbas! Never should he survive it! With my single tongue I would unstick him from his office, his civilisation, and his self-respect. But I recalled that he was a Gaul who had been shamed in public, and was, therefore, now insane. One did — one should — not mock afresh a man who has thus suffered. For so I have seen many good soldiers lost to France. Also, he was a soul in my charge . . .
‘Yet, you will concede, the volteface demanded skill. At that moment Saint Jubanus came to my aid. It was as though he himself had signalled: “To the next objective — charge! Martin is saved! Save now by any means the man whom I have used as his saviour. If necessary, old comrade, lie! Lie for the Honour of the Legion!” (‘Pristi! What a Commander he must have been in his prime!) I took at once for my text our saying: “It would need Saint Jubans himself to make you laugh.”
‘I made plain to them first, of course, that his merits were wide enough to cover the sin of laughing in church. I demonstrated what that laughter had effected for our poor Martin, whose agonies they knew all. I told them — and it is true — that the Bon Dieu demands nothing better from honest people than honest laughter, and that he who awakens it is a benefactor. Then I extolled the instrument by which the miracle had been wrought. That is to say, I extolled Falloux, who had lent himself so willingly and with such self-sacrifice to this happy accident. (After all, he had sworn creditably enough — for a Foot Chasseur!) I said that we two had often discussed Martin together. (My orders were to lie, and I interpreted them liberally.) I made clear how a smaller-minded man than he would have broken loose (which he could not have done except by her scissors) before the experiment had terminated; but that he, Falloux, was of a moral stature sufficient to advance under a mitraille of derision to the complete awakening of Martin’s soul. I said that though a freethinker, Falloux — this same animal Falloux — realised the value of moral therapeuthy. (They were enormously delighted at this. They thought it was a new vice from Paris.) For Falloux himself, who — she told me later — was biting his nails in the hen-house convulsed with shame, I extemporised a special citation. No. Our village does not read Rabelais, but he did. So I compared — Heaven forgive me! — that unhappy costive soul with all its belly to Gargantua. Oh, only by implication, Monsieur! I stated that the grandeur of his moral gesture of self-effacement was Gargantuan in its abandon. That phrase impressed them also. They realised now that it was not a comedy at which they had assisted, but a Miracle . . .
‘And thus I laboured with my people. Mon Dieu, but I sweated like an ox! At last they swung in the furrow, and I claimed their homage for him. And I succeeded! I led them down the hill to offer it en masse! He came out upon us like a wild beast. But when I had explained our objective, he — this enormity Falloux — was convinced that he had scientifically lent himself to a Gargantuan jest of abandoned self-abnegation because he was an expert in moral therapeutics! . . . That, setting aside my discourse, which was manifestly inspired, was the second miracle, Monsieur — the abasement of Falloux on — my faith! — his tenderest point. And his redemption! For it is she who is more the unbeliever of the two these days. She is a woman. She knows that I can be, on occasion, a liar almost as formidable . . .
‘But this has been an orgy of the most excellent cigarettes, and, for me, a debauch of conversation. It demands at least that I offer a cup of coffee which may not be too detestable. Let us go . . . But my little house is here — under the hand, see you — not three steps . . . But think of the pleasure you give me, Monsieur! . . . What? What? What is it that thou singest to me there? . . . A thousand pardons for the phrase! But Saint Julian of Auvergne has no affinity whatever with Saint Jubanus. They are uniquely different. I implore you to abandon that heresy! Auvergne! Auvergne! “Famous for its colleges and kettles,” as I once read somewhere in the world. Impossible a million times! Saint Julian was a Roman officer — doubtless of unimpeachable sanctity — but a Latin; whereas our General was a Gaul — as Gallic as —’
He beckoned to a young man of the large-boned, well-fleshed, post-war type, who was ascending the hill from the fields behind a yoke of gold and silver oxen with sheepskin wigs. He moved up slowly, smiling.
‘As Gallic as he,’ the priest went on. ‘Look at him! He was that one who was pinned to my umbrella by his back on that day and — tell Monsieur what they call you in the village now.’
The youth’s smile widened to a heavenly grin. ‘Parapluie, Monsieur,’ said he, and climbed on.
The priest stopped at his own door. ‘Mathilde,’ he cried, ‘the larger bottle — er — from Martinique; thy gingerbread; and my African coffee for two. Pardi, Monsieur, forty years ago there would have been two pistols also, had I known or cared anything about the Saints in those days! . . . Saint Julian of Auvergne, indeed! But I will explain.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56